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Troubling questions over how the NSU members could develop such hate and go unchallenged for so long, have sparked guilt and recriminations in Germany, nowhere more so than in Jena.
Some, including the domestic intelligence agency, see the NSU trio as the product of a unique set of circumstances, when the collapse of communist East Germany wiped out whole industries and workforces, leaving a generation of youngsters rudderless, and their parents too bewildered to raise them.
Today in Winzerla, the suburb of Jena where the trio grew up, buildings once daubed with swastikas have been spruced up, young mothers and their children stroll the streets, and the combat boots are gone.
“We did have a problem here. Young people were at risk of falling in with the far right,” said local mayor Mario Schmauder. “Not any more.”
“They were looking for something to believe in. You’d see people in combat boots, bomber jackets, with shaved heads, giving salutes. Others would cross the road to avoid them, and the youngsters mistook this as a sign of their power.”
The NSU trio were an anomaly, he said, explaining how huge efforts had been made to take youth groups to Auschwitz so they learned about Germany’s Nazi past.
But in the centre of Jena, school teacher Harald Zeil, a spokesman for the “Aktionsnetzwerk Jena”, which campaigns against the far right, says the threat is still very real, as is the tendency to look away.
“The discovery of the NSU confirmed our worst fears about the potential for violence,” he said. “As to the reasons, yes there was a social collapse back then in the 1990s, but there are still many areas where the far right are still very strong. There is a culture here of ignoring, looking the other way.”
He also sees a pervasive hostility to foreigners that the far right feeds on.
A high-profile study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in 2012 found xenophobia still deeply rooted in German society. Within the former East, 15.8 percent display far-right thinking, a significant increase on to two years earlier. In the former West it is around 7 percent.
In 2011 German authorities estimated there were 23,400 far-right adherents in the country, down slightly from the previous year, though the number of those considered violent rose a little to 9,800. “Neo-Nazism is younger, more violent, more militant,” a report warns.
The far right ranges from members of the National Democratic Party (NPD), which has lawmakers in two regional assemblies, to militant cadres, including the emerging “autonomous nationalists”, who are often indistinguishable from left-wing activists.
At the “Paradise” train station in Jena, a scrawny teenager in black clothes stands waiting for a train, inconspicuous and ignored. Only a trained eye would notice the “28” on his track suit, a reference to the second and eighth letters of the alphabet, “B” and “H”, standing for Blood and Honour, the motto of the Hitler Youth.